Public Catholicism As it Should Be

As we look at Catholics who are actively engaged in the public square, we are all too often disappointed that so few seem to be willing to stand up for Catholic principles. Far too many seem perfectly willing to compromise on essential issues of morality for the ephemeral advantages of party politics, fame, or prestige.

Then again, every so often a Mary Ann Glendon comes along.

You may be familiar with Professor Glendon, the former Ambassador to the Holy See, distinguished professor at Harvard Law School, and author of a number of books about bioethics, human rights, family law and abortion. She is an authentic pro-life Catholic feminist.

She was scheduled to receive the “Laetare Award” at the upcoming commencement exercises at Notre Dame University. There, she would have shared the stage with the President as he received his honorary degree as Doctor of Laws, and delivered the commencement address. Quite a bit of prestige for Prof. Glendon, a chance to bask in the reflected glory of the President, to receive a very nice prize, and to hear her praises sung by others.

Today, Prof. Glendon wrote to the President of NDU and declined the Laetare Award. In her letter, she wrote:

… as a longtime consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I could not help but be dismayed by the news that Notre Dame also planned to award the president an honorary degree. This, as you must know, was in disregard of the U.S. bishops’ express request of 2004 that Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” and that such persons “should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” That request, which in no way seeks to control or interfere with an institution’s freedom to invite and engage in serious debate with whomever it wishes, seems to me so reasonable that I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect it.

She went on to note that NDU had used her appearance at the commencement to try to blunt the storm of criticism that has arisen over the award to the President. She observed that NDU was holding out her speech as the kind of “dialogue” they were hoping to generate with the President on abortion. In response, Prof. Glendon stated:

It is not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame’s decision—in disregard of the settled position of the U.S. bishops—to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.

Finally, with recent news reports that other Catholic schools are similarly choosing to disregard the bishops’ guidelines, I am concerned that Notre Dame’s example could have an unfortunate ripple effect.

It is with great sadness, therefore, that I have concluded that I cannot accept the Laetare Medal or participate in the May 17 graduation ceremony.

That is precisely the kind of public witness that we need as Catholics. Being willing to stand up for the teachings of the Church, and for our fundamental moral duties, even at a personal cost.

Bravo to Prof. Glendon. May her example lead to many more such acts. No doubt St. Thomas More, patron saint of Catholic lawyers, is smiling upon his daughter in faith today.

I would also like to note an interesting juxtaposition of events today. On the same day as Prof. Glendon gave her notice to NDU, a fine Catholic man who long battled in the public square for the cause of human life and dignity, John Marchi, passed away into eternal life.

When he retired in 2006, he had served as a New York State legislator for 50 years — the longest of any New York lawmaker and one of the longest in America. He was an opponent of abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty, and was always proud to bring his Catholic faith into the public square.

He was a fine witness of our faith, and a true Catholic gentleman.

Please, God, send us more Mary Ann Glendons and John Marchis.

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